Category Archives: Death

On Funerals 3: Good news!

On moving into the UK, SCI’s President, Bill Heiligbrodt had declared, “we are here now for the rest of time.” No so: in 2002, failing to increase UK prices as hoped and under financial pressure back home, the Americans threw in the towel and sold their UK interests back to local management^, now trading as Dignity plc. A similar thing happened here in Australia with SCI Australia becoming Invocare.

Extract from Which?

Extract from Which?

When Which? Magazine reported on funerals in March 2002 it noted “Overall we found the quality of service bore no relation to whether the funeral director was part of a chain or was an independent. There were good and bad advisers everywhere. However funeral directors owned by Dignity were clearly the most expensive and independents the cheapest.

In most business sectors, the small man finds it impossible to compete with the larger multiples. No so with funerals. A good few staff who had worked for firms that were taken over and who now found themselves unhappy working in a corporate environment saw that they could set up on their own and undercut their former employers. Unlike the corporates they had nothing to fear from being open about their pricing and increasingly customers were starting to use the internet to investigate funeral options.
In 1997 I wrote that Age UK should be identifying those independent funeral directors who provide a high quality service at a reasonable price but they’d rather make money selling Dignity’s funeral plans. Thankfully in 2008 the Good Funeral Guide started up and maintains a register of inspected and recommended firms.

In July 2018 Dignity reported “The number of consumers starting their purchasing journey online has increased from 2% in 2012 to 45% in 2018.”, noting that “the number of deaths in the UK fell by 5.4% between 1995 and 2017. At the same time research has found that there was an 83% increase in the number of Funeral Directors between 1989 and 2017.” This is a key reason why funerals are so expensive: if (as is typical) a branch undertakes two funerals a week or less, you end paying half a week’s rent, arranger’s salary and other fixed costs. Not that the staff earn a fortune: Funeral Partners are [Jan 2022] advertising for casual funeral service operatives – duties include collecting the deceased, mortuary work, polishing hearses, acting as pallbearer etc – the princely sum of £8.91 per hour.

Dignity’s 2020 annual report and accounts for 2020 is available on the Companies House website. In his report Executive Chairman Clive Whiley (ousted May 2021) makes the following extraordinary admission:

The Transformation Plan, launched with great fanfare and at considerable expense in 2018, in my opinion introduced too narrow a focus upon one element of the Group, without considering the capacity to grow the business organically across its full bandwidth. In short, that was tantamount to admitting defeat as a Group that had elected for many years to utilise the majority of its capital investment buying its way out of deteriorating funeral market share (2001: 491 funeral locations and 11.8 per cent funeral market share: 2019: 820* funeral locations and 11.7 per cent funeral market share). At best that consolidated the heritage of strong family businesses and staff that perform well to this day, at worst business integration ceased at legal completion: leading to Dignity essentially becoming the industry retirement plan for independent funeral directors.” (*80,300 funerals, an average of 98 per branch per year)

Meanwhile government had got interested. In 2020 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) completed its in-depth market investigation into the funerals sector which was followed up by an order requiring that, from 16 September 2021, all funeral directors must display a Standardised Price List at their premises and on their website. This list must include:

  • The headline price of a funeral.
  • The price of the individual items comprising the funeral.
  • The price of certain additional products and services.

In addition, from 17 June 2021, funeral directors may not make payments to incentivise hospitals, palliative care services, hospices, care homes or similar institutions to refer customers to a particular funeral director or solicit for business through coroner and police contracts.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-requires-clearer-prices-and-information-from-funeral-providers

It’s taken 30 years but at last the funeral customer is in a good place. Hopefully you won’t find yourself having to arrange a funeral for a long long time, but when you do make good use of the resources now available to you. Giving someone you loved a fitting send off is important and the right funeral director or celebrant can help you do this.

On funerals 2: The Americans

I finished part 1 with the American SCI moving in on the UK funeral industry. Corporate acquisition of funeral businesses had three key aims:

1. Where possible acquire businesses that would complement ones already owned with the aim of stripping out duplicated back office facilities and maximising the use of vehicles. So when the Richmond-based T.H.Sanders was acquired, its hub at Preston Place, Richmond, was sold, its functions being transferred to F.W.Paine’s Kingston hub. To a degree efficiency is a good thing but … My father died on a Sunday and his funeral was the following Friday. Now, even pre-Covid, a delay of two weeks or even more was not unusual. Of course, this might be what the family wanted. I do wonder though if it’s a question of a local branch trying to back-to-back several funerals whilst the vehicles are with them?

2. Acquired businesses would keep their existing names, with no corporate identification (now not the case). In Kingston the once deadly rivals Farebrother and Paine faced one another off across London Road for many years, likewise in my native Twickenham, Sanders & Higgs and Wake & Paine ‘compete’ with each other 25+ years after falling under the same ownership.

3. Aim to increase prices. The claim at the time was that people were being offered a wider choice. When I arranged my father’s funeral in 1988 I went to Sanders & Higgs^, then family-owned. In response to my enquiry about price the duty manager replied “we’ve got various options but rest assured you will receive the same quality of service regardless of what you choose and you’re not to feel under any pressure to spend any more than you want”. Not long after they were taken over by Great Southern, then SCI. A TV documentary sent an undercover reporter to another Sanders branch. The arranger denied any knowledge of cheapest option – one which he knew existed.

In the mid-1990s the corporate ownership of funeral homes came under increasing scrutiny from the media. The one thing that I took from these exposes was that decent caring people at the sharp end were being pushed into a place they didn’t want to be. Stories came out of funeral arrangers being placed on a sales league table with those failing to sell up being humiliated. They were told to offer sweeteners in the form of a laying out payment to old people’s homes: one arranger interviewed on TV said that she felt so bad the first time she made the offer, she never did it again. A home owner said that it was something they always did as a last service to their client and this was an insult.

This coverage culminated in SCI placing full-page ads in the mainstream press apologising for past misdeeds and promising to do better in the future, which by all accounts they have done. Perhaps on reflection SCI UK’s then bosses were being leant on by their American masters to maximise sales at any cost and were as much victims as villains?

While all this was going on Age Concern continued to sell SCI funeral plans, with not a word about the misdeeds being reported elsewhere. In 1997 I sent them an open letter ““… Chosen Heritage [SCI’s then branding for its prepaid funerals] (and to a lesser extent, some other schemes) represents a threat to independent undertakers, many of whom provide a high quality service at a reasonable price. Within each local area Age Concern should be working to identify and support such firms …. Instead Age Concern/Age UK has worked hard to weaken such firms by ensuring that at a time of death they will not be engaged no matter how good they are”.

It wasn’t all bad news. Several London independents – John Nodes, Gillman and Albin – were the subject of fly-on-the-wall TV documentary series, each firm coming across in a very positive light. The first two are now owned by Funeral Partners. Gillman was one of the first firms to put funeral prices on their website; on being taken over the price list disappeared but thanks to the wayback machine we know that in 2002 they charged £1,085+coffin+disbursements for a traditional funeral = £1,810 in 2021 pounds. Their current charge for a similar funeral is £3,425, nearly double.

Next: Customer power at work

On funerals 1: The past

It might seem weird, but the funeral industry has always been of interest to me. This interest dates back to my teenage days: one year our English teacher had to take extended leave and in his place we had a young supply teacher who made no secret of his anti-American views – in fairness, this was at the height of the Vietnam war. The class readers he provided included Jessica Mitford’s ‘The American Way of Death’ and Evelyn Waugh’s satire, ‘The Loved One

Several decades ago I read a book (title forgotten) which observed, “no one loves undertakers, except, we hope, their wives and children. But when we need them, we’re glad they’re there.” Indeed, and a shout-out to all the good decent caring people in the funeral industry who provide the guidance and reassurance needed when called on. As part of the same church community for 49 years I attended dozens of funerals as older members passed away and saw what ‘good’ funerals can be like.

Funeral directing has changed significantly over time. Pre-Covid I went to a talk by a local FD who said he defined his job as being an event manager. 100+ years ago it was all about making coffins, and particularly in smaller communities the local carpenter or builder would also be the local undertaker. A local woman, very often the midwife, would do the laying out and the hearse and carriages, where required, would be hired from a carriage master (they still exist), with suitably attired labourers seconded for ‘lifting in’ and as pallbearers. Robert Tressell’s Edwardian novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists‘ gives us this picture: “Crass took a lively interest in the undertaking department of Rushton & Co.’s business. He always had the job of polishing or varnishing the coffin and assisting to take it home and to ‘lift in’ the corpse, besides acting as one of the bearers at the funeral. This work was more highly paid for than painting.

In larger communities undertaking became a standalone business. Many firms operated from one or two sites, others grew their businesses to a significant size.  In SW London and Surrey Frederick Paine took over the family business at 24 and by the time he died aged 75 his Kingston HQ serviced 14 branches. Jessica Mitford’s book is generally seen as an attack on the funeral industry, but her early 1960s visit to Mr Ashton whose family firm operated in South London left her with a very positive picture of UK funeral practice. When she visited him their typical funeral cost £50, about £1,100 at 2021 prices – today’s actual price is £1,995. Later the firm fell into corporate ownership.

From the second half of the 20C the funeral industry began to consolidate. The Great Southern Group took over numerous firms, Paine included. Then there was ‘yuppie undertaker’ Howard Hodgson. In 1988 the Spectator reported^: “In 1976 Howard Hodgson, aged 26, bought his father’s funeral business for £14,000. It was undertaking 400 funerals a year …  Since then Hodgson’s has acquired over 40 other funeral directors… [and] now undertakes 35,000 funerals a year … The company is now worth £70 million“. After more consolidation it became the PFG Hodgson Kenyon group – J.H.Kenyon had been the royal undertakers, an appointment they lost once no longer independent. Then in 1994 the American Service Corporation International swept in, taking over both groups. Their strategy was clear: they would continue the policy of acquired businesses trading under their old names, whilst looking to jack up prices substantially. You might go to ‘Josiah Smith and Sons’ because you’d used them ten years earlier and not be aware that everything behind the shopfront had changed. It was licence to print money. What could go wrong?


For a detailed account of UK funeral industry practice check out Brian Parsons’ excellent books.

The final journey – by rail

hearse car

Restored hearse car

Today I went on our Railway History Society‘s June 2018 outing, taking in the Craigieburn and Upfield lines. After a good lunch we finished up at Fawkner Cemetery where a restored hearse car is on display.

From the early 1890s new cemeteries were needed in Melbourne. A Northern Suburbs Cemetery Conference, held in 1902, suggested a 284 acre site which included Fawkner Railway Station, and this was adopted. The first funeral, that of four year old Dorothy Knapp, was held on 10th December 1906.

Hearse car information

Hearse car information

From the outset the new cemetery was linked to the city by a dedicated rail service. One service per day ran from Flinders Street Station platform 10 east, the mortuary platform, and this ran as an ordinary passenger service with additional hearse cars attached. Each hearse car could take twenty coffins.

The regular funeral train service was discontinued in 1939 though occasional trains would be run until 1952. The hearse cars were sold for scrap and assumed to be lost,  before three were found on a farm in 1990. After restoration this one is now on display next to Fawkner station.

FAWKNER MEMORIAL PARK Conservation Management Plan